Making Lies Work for You at the Office A new book argues that honesty may not be the best policy in the workplace. From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace says lies may not be so bad — they're an essential part of how business gets done.

Making Lies Work for You at the Office

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays, we talk about the workplace, where it turns out that honesty may not be the best policy. A new book argues that lies and misinformation may not be so bad. They're an essential part of how business gets done. David Shulman is the author of a book called "From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace."

Mr. Shulman, welcome to the program.

Professor DAVID SHULMAN (Sociology and Anthropology, Lafayette University; Author, "From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace"): Thank you very much for having me as a guest.

INSKEEP: I see a little author's note here saying you teach anthropology and sociology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Is that a lie?

Mr. SHULMAN: No, that's the actual truth.

INSKEEP: Oh, okay. So, you told truth that far. What's so good about lying?

Mr. SHULMAN: Well, one of the things that lying does is it may not have a lot ethical virtues, but it has a lot of functional virtues. Sometimes, in fact, one of the virtues of lying is to be able to bypass certain rules, for example, that people would think are unfair or oppressive to customers or clients.

INSKEEP: The regulation that causes you to deny the refund to the customer might just have to be bypassed.

Mr. SHULMAN: Well, examples like that. And I would say, I've found some of the more serious deceptions in nonprofits. People, for example, may say the money is going to one kind of cause, take a little more of it for another cause because they felt what they're doing is really for the greater good. They're very, very morally committed. Just like in other contexts - in business, if somebody is bringing money in, people don't always like to ask a lot of questions about how that's happening.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of an example of a person whom I will not name who had a job for a while selling a product that the company had not perfected yet, and he faced this constant ethical dilemma about what claims to make for the products because he had a strong suspicion that they weren't going to be able to deliver anything.

Mr. SHULMAN: Well, it's a very great example, because the first lie that would happen is the lie that somebody might tell to themself. It's not their fault that they may be misleading the person. The responsibility for a decision like that doesn't lie with them. They are, kind of, a neutral tool of management, and they don't kind of bear the responsibility for carrying out the false claims.

INSKEEP: Well, who's somebody you met who would in fact lied to themselves about the lie they were telling?

Mr. SHULMAN: Classic example would be I'm walking down the hall with somebody. They see a co-worker. They're like, hey, it's wonderful to see you, how are the kids? We walk a few more feet. And then the person says I hate that such and such. And if I ask people whether that's deceptive, they say, no. That's etiquette.

And another example - I talked to somebody about their resume. They explained to me that they had barely any experience, but they'd implied on their resume that they did have experience. And I asked if that was deceptive, and the guy said, no. It's just telling the most optimistic version of the truth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHULMAN: It's what the guy says.

INSKEEP: Are there situations where you almost expect to be lied to? You expect the car salesman to tell you the good things about the car, and you know he might not be telling you everything, but it's kind of what you expect.

Mr. SHULMAN: Obviously, private detectives. I'm thinking of the private detective who told me that if b.s. was music, I'd be the philharmonic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: David Shulman, thanks very much.

Mr. SHULMAN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Mr. Shulman is author of "From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace," and you can read an excerpt from his book at npr.org.

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